Saturday, October 6, 2012



Tioga pass, Yosemite National Park

           The Reverend Stan Drake fumed behind the wheel, feeling anything but reverend at the moment. He spoke to his passenger without taking his eyes off the road. “This road just had to be built by the same people who operate the local ambulance services. I mean, the crazy dangerous thing must generate a lot of trauma patients.” Drake swerved his Chevy Suburban toward the dirt shoulder, narrowly avoiding still another oncoming sedan. Hank, Drake's dog, whined as he strove to maintain balance on the wildly pitching seat. On Drake's narrow face, further sharpened by wrath, his mouth tightened into a bloodless line. His hands clenched the steering wheel in a tense death-grip, unable to relax. 
            He drove west along Tioga Road, having already crested the pass somewhere back in the stratosphere, seemingly. At 9,945 feet, Tioga Pass on the park’s eastern border is the highest auto-route over the Sierras. And Tioga Road, he’d discovered, had more than its share of impatient drivers. Drake had lost count of the near misses. These people pulled right out into traffic, fearless as mounted knights, challenging oncoming vehicles to single combat. He’d been fighting the crush for an hour now, and the experience had become tedious.
Drake eased shoulders stiff with tension. The minivan riding too close to his rear bumper poked it’s snout into traffic, sniffing for an opening. He pulled a sour eye from the large side mirror and glanced across the seat to check on his passenger. That last madman had nearly thrown his friend across the cab.
Harlan McCreery sat with one hand gripping the passenger grab handle and the other pressed against the dashboard. Harlan was a retired Army Chaplain and one of Drake’s fellow pastors in the sparsely populated Eastern Sierras. Over the past two years Drake had sought the older man’s counsel on a number of occasions. Their casual acquaintance had blossomed into a rich friendship. Harlan's presence today was temporary, aboard for only part of the journey. Harlan sighed, relaxing legs he had splayed and locked against the floorboard. He dropped his stiff arm and loosened his death grip on the handle.
“Well, well…” Harlan replied, wiping nervous sweat from his brow. “Nice to hear from you, at last. I thought you'd gone deaf and mute on me over there, brother.” Harlan waved an all-encompassing arm at the landscape, “Looks to me like our real problem is this dinky little trail—laughingly called a road. I doubt anybody ever intended it to carry this much traffic.”
Drake willed himself to relax. He eased his stiff hands from the wheel, flexing them one at a time. “It's not like I'm a flat-lander or anything,” Drake grumped. “I know how to drive in the mountains.”
“Maybe you do. I’m not so sure about these city folk, though.” Harlan shifted his bulk on the bench seat. “I tell you, I'm glad I'm not the guy driving. You got your hands full, brother. You gotta keep judging the distance between vehicles in front, behind and beside you. And, just to liven things up, you got all these suicidal nuts passing everyone in sight; there goes another one!” They watched as the sporty red minivan accelerated past, barely missing an oncoming truck.
           “Hoo Boy!” Harlan grabbed for the handle again. “Somebody’s in a hurry to meet her Maker. Did 
 you see that Hank?” Harlan watched the dog starring at the passing scenery. “Do you see something that needs chasing, boy?” Hank thumped his tail on the seat, resuming his ceaseless scrutiny of the landscape. Harlan spotted movement, pointed and said, “Look Hank, a deer! Look, right over there!” Hank turned his head to stare at Harlan’s outstretched finger. “Not my hand, you goofy animal, over there!” The dog looked from Harlan's face back to the finger, serious as a Bishop. Harlan playfully rubbed Hank's furry head. “This dog is dumber than a box of rocks.” He moved his hand to scratch behind the ears. “Yes, I'm talking to you, Mutt.”
In spite of the banter, Drake knew his friend had more serious issues in mind. He understood Harlan well enough to know he had taken advantage of Drake's conversational opening. Thus far the trip had been mostly silent. Now, as the terrain opened up around Toulumne Meadows, Drake braced himself for another dose of helpful edification. Like I haven’t gotten enough advice in the past few months.
“I’ve held my peace for a long time now, haven’t I?” Harlan spread his big hands. “You know me, I don’t like to go throwing my two cents in until I have something worth saying.” Drake knew that Harlan was watching him closely as he spoke.
           Drake thought about what his friend would see. The same thing I see everyday; an average-sized thirty-year old, with dark hair. He grimaced. Oh, and don’t forget the pathetic, wounded expression that won’t go away. Drake couldn't seem to lose that facial cast. Six months and I can't get past Linda walking out. That alone is bad enough. What makes it worse is all the well-meaning folks who keep telling me how I ought to feel; as if I’ll suddenly start feeling happy-happy. Drake wasn’t totally helpless. He had some measure of control over his actions. He could still function as a man, a Christian and even as a preacher. But his recalcitrant emotions continued to overwhelm him at the strangest times.
            The Suburban crossed Toulumne's wide meadows, entering another round of narrow, twisting gorges on the other side. The big Chevy had been a loan for the trip. It belonged to Gene Prentice, one of his Deacons back home. It still retained an aura of stiff newness. Drake kept himself busy discovering its many quirks. The Suburban is a long wheel base, sport utility vehicle with a hefty amount of mass. Despite every automotive luxury known to man, including power steering, Drake found that it tended to go straight whenever the road required a particularly tight turn.    
“I love this truck,” Harlan patted the dashboard. “Yep, a big rugged SUV Just the thing for a hale, manly guy like you to take into the great outdoors.”
“Oh, yeah?” snorted Drake, “that's what I thought, too, before we got passed by something like sixty billion other SUVs. Every last one of them crammed full of kids and driven by their mommies.” He made a face. “I’ve changed my tune.”
“Well, anyway, you're doing the right thing, taking a rugged trip like this.” Harlan sat back against the seat. “You need some time away, think things over.”
Here it comes, Drake grimaced. The same line I got from the church back home. He remembered Gene handing over the keys….
“Go on.” Gene Prentice, Chairman of Deacons could be a hard man to argue with. “The Deacons have met and the whole congregation want’s you to take some time off. Go take that trip you’ve been planning, see if you can’t do a little mending. Here’s a check to cover vacation pay, and a little over.”
“I don’t know, Gene. I don’t feel right taking your Chevy.”
“Too bad, because I want you to take my truck. You don’t seriously think you can trust that old wreck of yours to cross the mountains, do you?”
Though he had tried to appear pleased and appreciative in front of Gene, he felt trapped. Secretly he’d hoped his beat-up old Datsun would be a good enough excuse to cancel the trip. Now it was back on track again, like some recurring nightmare. The whole story was sort of comical, if you had a twisted enough sense of humor; an entire congregation and their pastor pretending that everything was normal in the face of an obvious breakdown.
            “Seriously,” Harlan broke into Drakes thoughts, “You need to think long and hard about your situation. A lot of people are beginning to wonder if you’re trying to disqualify yourself from the ministry. Me, I think Linda’s death has left you with some serious doubts about your faith. But the fact remains, you need to get alone before the Lord and hash this out.”
“But my congregation needs me.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Your congregation needs a healthy, functioning pastor; a man of faith. Right now, brother you ain't it. Do you hear me?”
            Drake took a deep breath. “I’m listening, but I don’t know if I can ever be the pastor I was before.
            “That’s good, because you can’t. You can either quit or you can persevere and gain some maturity, but you’ll never be the same kind of pastor again, that’s for sure.”
            Drake shook his head in frustration. “I feel like going on this trip is only running away from my problems.”
            “You know what you’re real problem is brother? You don't trust God.”
            “What!?” Drake jerked his head around to glare at his friend.
            “I’m serious as a heart attack.” Harlan jabbed a thick finger. “Listen to what you’re saying: ‘Poor little me, I’m suffering for Jesus and I don’t deserve it.’ You need to trust God to heal you and bring something good out of this garbage. Grow up.” Harlan crossed his arms. “Sermon over.” The older pastor set his jaw and looked out the window.
Drake stared out the windshield through dark, hooded eyes. Outside, aloof from the highway, the evergreen forest swept by, punctuated by immense piles of igneous rock.
            After a while Harlan shifted, uncomfortable again. “How much farther do we have to go anyway?”
            Drake forced himself to stop grumbling. “Oh, another twenty miles or so. Tioga covers about fifty miles from east to west. That’s as the crow flies, of course.”
            “We’ve only come thirty miles!? How come it’s taking so long?”
            Drake loosed a harsh bark of laughter. “Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention pal, but this is not a multi-lane freeway.” He punched the trip-computer button. “Look at this, we’ve averaged a whole thirty-five miles an hour on this leg of our jaunt.”
            Harlan leafed through a guidebook. “Says here this road was originally built to serve silver mines.” He stopped to gape as the truck narrowly passed between two huge boulders. “You gotta hand it to those old timers. They came to a remote plateau in the mountains and carved this road through trees, mud and solid rock.” He stopped thumbing through the book. “From the looks of this road, I figure those silver mines never did strike it rich. But hey, it makes a fine shortcut over the mountains don’t it?”
            “Forget about the road,” Drake nodded forward. “Look over there.” To the west, storm clouds clung to the horizon, somewhere near the Pacific coast. “Those clouds can stay way over there as far as I’m concerned. Maybe we can reach our destination before an early Fall storm buries us up to the luggage rack.”
            “You worried about snow in California? In September?”
            “Oh, we’ve got a reasonable margin of safety this time of year. But don’t think it can’t snow any time at all in the Sierra’s. Remember those two hikers who froze last August? That was somewhere hereabouts.”
            Drake continued to drive his four-wheel beast across the mountains. He felt sort of like Hannibal driving his elephant across the Alps. As he drove the clouds continued to close in around them too, just like trouble. Upon reaching the western terminus of the highway, Tioga met Big Oak Flat road. Drake pulled into the Gas-n-Mini-mart where Harlan expected to meet his family.   
            “There they are—I see ‘em. Thanks for the ride, brother.” Harlan got out and retrieved his bag from the back seat. He stuck his free hand into a coat pocket. “Man it’s cold here!” Before shutting the door he reached across and clapped Drake on the shoulder. “You think about what I said, now.”
“I will, Harlan;” Drake sighed. “In fact I already have.” The door slammed shut and Drake watched his friend greet some family-member-or-other across the parking lot.
“Come on, boy,” he roused Hank as he pulled up next to a gas pump, “time for a stroll.” Hank jumped up, shivering in sheer joy over the prospect of a walk. Drake pulled out a blue nylon leash. Snapping it to the dog’s matching collar, he held out the end. Hank took the leash in his mouth, walking himself; one of the few tricks Drake had been able to teach him.
            As he opened the truck’s door an unexpected rackety clatter drew his attention over to the west. It took a moment before Drake classified the sound as coming from a pair of helicopters. The clamorous noise moved directly toward the service station where they stood.
“Now that’s odd,” yelled Harlan from across the parking lot, one foot in his brother’s car. “The guide book says flying low over the park is illegal.” He pointed above the trees. “Can you see ‘em?”
Drake stared into the lowering clouds, until they appeared. Two dark bug shapes, ethereally materializing out of the mist. “They look military to me.” He called across the hood. “That’s your field, Chaplain.”
“Yep,” the older preacher agreed. “Those aren’t tourist’s flights. That’s the official government workhorse; the UH-60 Blackhawk.”
One of them flared, landing a few hundred yards away, right at the intersection where the main north-south route met Tioga Road. The Blackhawk squatted on the pavement, rotor still spinning. The other chopper remained aloft, flying in wide circles as if it were establishing a combat air patrol over the mountaintop landing zone—an L-Z, in military speak.
“Cool.” Drake might be a minister but he was also a typical guy. He snatched a pair of binoculars from the truck, swinging them to his eyes for a closer look. Switching his view from one helicopter to the other, he noticed that both birds were loaded with men. He could discern some sort of logo on the side of the parked chopper but, from where he stood, it was too sharp an angle to read. Two men, dressed in regular civilian clothing, disembarked their hands full of gear. Once the dismounted passengers cleared the whirling blades the pilot lifted off, formed up with his wingman and headed east over the pass.
Shivering with the cold, Drake soon dismissed the odd but certainly legitimate presence of U.S. government helicopters in a U.S. National park. He shrugged, locked the Chevy, and said goodbye to Harlan. Then he led a clearly anxious Hank over to some roadside bushes to take care of urgent doggy business. That done, Drake hurried to the Suburban and stuffed the pooch back inside. An icy blast of wind scattered leaves across the parking lot. Drake hastily zipped his jacket closed before turning to pump the gas.


            Paige unlocked the front entrance and shut off the alarm system. She bent to look out through the shop’s front window. Yosemite Falls winked at her in the distance. The waterfall’s feathery spring plumes had given up most of their glory this late in the season. Still, the sight never failed to stir her. As she flipped on the lights she repeated her mantra: “Another day in paradise.” With a practiced twist she flipped the sign on the door to ‘Come on in, we’re open.’
Opening the shop each day gave Paige Mitchell a sense of purpose. She might share a house with her friend, Megan Cameron, but Bridalveil Gifts was home. From the Victorian tearoom, to the hand crafted gifts, to her own art studio and gallery; Bridalveil Gifts was her domain. Technically, she and Megan were partners. They agreed to split the responsibilities fifty-fifty. But Megan had way-too-many outside interests to put in more than an occasional appearance. That was just fine with Paige. She had never known personal satisfaction like she found here in Yosemite. It wasn’t perfect of course, but virtually heaven compared to the life she’d left behind.
            Paige fired up the computer and started some soulful, Gaelic pipe music to set the proper mood. As the music swelled, evoking images of green hills and quiet happiness, she put on water for tea. The daily deluge of browsing tourists would soon appear. It wouldn’t be right to meet them half prepared.
She turned back to the computer and brought up the shop’s inventory window. Humm… She scratched her ear. Running short of redwood burl plaques again, she noted. The silly things had been big-seller this season, for some inexplicable reason. She noted other shortages then logged onto her supplier’s web site and placed an order.
As she went about her morning routine the silver bell over the door chimed and a dark-skinned park ranger entered. “Good morning Chiquita, I brought in your mail.”
“Hi, Uncle Rudy,” she called from behind the computer. “Just leave the checks and return the bills as non-deliverable, please.”
Rudy Gutierrez smiled at the old joke. He placed the bundle on the counter. He moved into the kitchen. While checking out the contents of the fridge he called, “do you still wish to travel into the high country on my rounds next week?”
Paige followed, pausing to pour herself a cup of herbal tea. “I sure do. I’m trying to develop some fresh ideas for a new series I’d like to paint.” Moving back to the counter, she picked up the envelopes. “Let’s see what we have here….” Paige picked up the bundle, sipping while leafing through the stack. With a practiced hand she quickly separated junk mail from personal, private from business.
Paige frowned. Her hands began trembling as she came upon an envelope bearing a familiar address. Her hand dropped slack to her side. So, Mommy and Daddy are at it again. She considered the implications before concluding, who cares? She tossed the offensive letter, unopened, into a wastebasket.
Paige bit her lip, glaring down at the plain white envelope, nestled among the other trash. She would have liked to go about her work as if the letter was as unimportant as she feigned. She sighed, fidgeted with the computer, and burned her tongue on the hot tea. Absolutely not possible. The letter lay in the wastebasket calling to her. Paige stood tense behind the counter, fists clenched, unseeing eyes staring at infinity. Her hand crept upward and resumed its nervous hair-twirling.
She struggled for inner strength but the emotions were simply too powerful. The wounds still deep and easily opened. My parents are such hypocritical phonies! She surrendered to the familiar rage, unable to stem the flood of poison. Throughout her childhood she’d watched them live a double standard. On Sundays the whole Mitchell family would go to church, piously condemning grievous ‘sins’ like drinking, dancing, and card playing. For the rest of the week those same ‘sins’ and worse were a regular part of the Mitchell household. Why couldn’t they see what they were doing to me? she raged. Didn’t they care? she often wondered. Of course not, came her oft reply.
Paige had finally rebelled, of course. Most teenagers do, though not often as single mindedly as she. Paige conceived a master plan to out-do Mommy and Daddy. She stopped going to church, partied and played around with the worst boys; just like she’d learned at home. The difference: Paige did her sinning in the harsh light of day. In fact she went out of her way to shame her parents before the entire community. In the small town of Gridly, California, Paige Mitchell created quite a scandal.
For a while her shocking behavior satisfied a burning desire for vengeance, filling some sort of void. She worked hard at having a good time. And that, she’d learned, was the definition of happiness. Right? Parties, drugs, booze, boyfriends; Paige wasn’t about to miss out on anything. She kept herself so busy she had little time to ponder her growing misery.
And then one day she woke up in a strange and filthy room. Head-aching again, she began to take a long hard look at what her life had become. To her amazement, she realized she felt shame. That surprised her. How could she feel shame; her religion was a sham wasn’t it?
Paige discovered that in trying so hard to punish her mother and father, she had only connived at hastening her own destruction. So she left. Completely. Packed up and disappeared that very day. She hitchhiked her way to Yosemite where Rudy, her mother’s estranged brother lived.
Twice her parents had tried to contact her; twice she had rebuffed them. She had no further need of parents. Paige had permanently resigned from the American Association of Doting Daughters. Bridalveil Gifts was home now, her refuge. She had attained something solid, wholesome, something worth doing. She had found friends and earned respect. What else could I need? But the void remained deep inside, aching like a broken tooth.
Paige set her jaw and reached into the wastebasket. She snatched the unopened envelope, crushing it in her clenched hand. Snatching up a pair of scissors she proceeded to cut the letter into irreducible confetti, fluttering to the counter. Take that!
Caught up in her slasher frenzy Paige suddenly came to herself. Uncle Rudy! Red-faced, hair escaping its headband, she looked around to see if he had seen her deranged performance. No! He’s gone. Relief swept through her until she heard a slight noise. Taking two short steps, Paige peered around the corner into the kitchen. Uncle Rudy stood near the back door, head bowed, one hand covering his eyes.

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